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A familiar pond takes on a surreal new world as darkness settles and an angler’s senses rely more on sound and feel than eyesight.
By Dan Magneson, from the July/August 2016 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine
I think the main pleasure I derive from listening to pop hits from the late 1960s through the 1980s stems from the fact each individual song provides a unique trip down memory lane. I’m a nostalgic sort anyway, and these songs take me back to the days when I was younger, conjuring up treasured memories of some very special times. The memories triggered by each song are usually comprised of happy occasions, but not always, and what seems most unusual to me is just how vividly I recall very specific people and very specific settings.
For the first time in years, I recently heard Jim Stafford’s 1973 hit “Swamp Witch,” and that song invariably takes me back through the years to night fishing for largemouth bass in the farm ponds of southwest Iowa.
I fished these ponds for largemouth bass during the daytime and was intimately familiar with that routine: the song of meadowlarks from the surrounding fields, the crow of a rooster pheasant that somehow always reminded me of an antique car horn, the red-winged blackbirds that hovered over and scolded you, pushing your way through elbow-high grass near where the bank dropped off down to the water and how that caused those little reddish-hued grasshoppers to panic and frantically hurl themselves in every direction, with some always seeming to land back on you and others out in the water.
Next you would startle those clusters of little sulphur butterflies gathered on the pudding-like mud along the water’s edge, and they would rise skyward in a swirl of saffron. There would be jewelweed tucked against the bank and every once in a blue moon, maybe even some cardinal flower, whose flowers always seemed so intensely—so startlingly—red. Then some patches of duck potato and intermittent cattails and then that omnipresent, concentric band of pondweed ringing the outer perimeter before the depth dropped away too sharply. Maybe there would be water lilies, too, in certain parts of certain ponds.
I remember how I admired the alternating light and dark blotching on the wings of the twelve-spotted skimmer dragonflies and the bright colors and iridescence on some of the damselflies. I marveled at the intricate and ornate blend of black and yellow patterns on the garden spiders that hung in the zipper-like center of their circular webs, and how all of this seemed so tropical-looking. The air would be hot and heavy with humidity—so thick you almost felt you could slice it with a knife—and it would smell vaguely like mildew.
Most of all, I remember the excitement when those bass struck a topwater plug, how the silver of their scales had that slight greenish cast to them, the roughness of those little teeth along the lower lip as you lifted them from the water, and that dark band that ran down along the center of their sides. I learned that the presence of good bullfrog habitat often meant good largemouth fishing just a little further out; both seemed to have a strong affinity for slack, still waters and seemed to avoid areas of flowing water.
That was the world I knew, and I lived for and loved all of it, and especially that tranquility in the evenings after work. According to some, I liked it too well. This was back during the heyday of movies like Saturday Night Fever and somehow I just never quite got the allure of the throngs of people and the throb of the music at the local discothèque. Oftentimes behind my back and sometimes to my face, I was called “anti-social” for my indifference, but I remained as I was.
That world changed after I read an outdoor magazine article about bass fishing at night. I knew that fishing at night was an effective strategy for channel catfish and walleye, but didn’t know it worked for largemouth bass too.
It was weird starting to fish at the time I had previously been packing up and heading home. The western horizon was painted various hues and blends of purple and red and yellow and orange and pink and the landscape took on a slightly golden look. The breeze always seemed to die down in the evening, and sound carried over long distances. Metallic clanking sounds emanated from self-feeders in the hog lot atop the neighboring hill. Cattle would be lowing off in the distance. The erratic flight and distinctive “speark” cry of a passing nighthawk sounded overhead. Across the water, a bullfrog started a deep and deliberate serenade. Bats were starting to take over where swallows were leaving off. Long shadows faded, sky turned a still-deeper shade of blue, the evening star became visible, a whip-poor-will called, the sky worked its way toward indigo and finally into blackness. At some point along the way, flashes of fireflies around you were overwhelmed by stars above.
One thing that proved refreshing was the reduction in clutter: while vast choices of possible lures and seemingly-infinite variety of colors that ruled daytime fishing could combine to give you a migraine, nighttime fishing for largemouths was amazingly spartan: always Fred Arbogast’s famous Jitterbug, always black in color and always 5/8 ounce in weight. I rounded that out with a pair of needle-nosed pliers in my back pocket and a penlight clipped to my shirt pocket, and I was set for the evening.
This was a new world dominated largely by sound and to a lesser degree physical sensation, but most definitely not by sight, and you felt a lot less cocky and a lot more humble when you could hear and feel things but could not see them so well. You felt like you were a part of it and apart from it both at the same time. The air turned instantly cooler during your last steps down to the water’s edge, as though you’d passed through an invisible veil. Your eyes would adjust better than you might imagine, but your vision was still vague and rudimentary. The blazing and brilliant streaks of shooting stars were automatically guaranteed to be your most stunning visions for the night, but when looking skyward, my personal favorite was always “the Teapot,” which was really a part of the constellation Sagittarius, and it did indeed look like a sort of connect-the-dots teapot that always seemed to hang low in the southern sky.
But your hearing seemed to improve considerably out there, and helped to offset your far-poorer vision. Amid the gentle din of the crickets you could often discern your fishing partner casting and the plop of the lure landing in the water. Sometimes you could hear the trill of a screech owl down along the creek bottom or maybe a train whistle way off in the night.
We didn’t have alligators or cottonmouths in our neck of the woods, which was comforting when prowling pond banks in the dark. We were young then, and in keeping with being young, didn’t worry about things like treble hooks flying through the darkness or breaking your leg in an unseen muskrat hole. The closest call I ever had was once mistaking the ivory-colored underside of a snapping turtle for the ivory-colored underside of a big bass.
And it was incredibly eerie out there. We never used our penlights except when we absolutely had to, and then only when kneeling down within cover of tall, dense grass. Things tumbled out of black willows and cottonwoods. June bugs? What’s that moving through the grass and slipping into the water? A muskrat? A northern watersnake? That faint flutter and little blast of air against the side of your face—was that a bat or just a big moth wheeling away in the darkness? You never really knew for sure. The rustling of the grass as something moved away from the water was somehow spookiest of all; that would really make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.
But bass fishing was very good, and fish ran considerably larger at night; they seemed to drop their guard under cover of darkness. The even cadence of that soft, back-and-forth lou-duh-lou-duh-lou-duh-lou-duh of the Jitterbug working toward you through the darkness was a pleasant and even reassuring sound. Sometimes those explosive strikes happened close, so very close that you were starting to lift the lure from the water when it occurred, and coupled with the ferocity of the strike it was such that it might well splash water back onto your pants as the rod tip seemingly dipped to your toes. It was also pretty common for bass to miss the lure completely, and especially when it occurred right up against shore, you’d stand there in darkness with your heart pounding in your ears and watch moonlight wobbling in the ripples. And when you latched onto what seemed to be an exceptionally-large bass, you’d wade out in hasty excitement to disentangle your fish from the weeds, and you would feel that cool water seeping through your tennis shoes, and then smell that rotten egg odor wafting up from the bottom of the pond.
When we were all done, I can still recall how impossibly bright that greenish-whitish glow from the dashboard lights seemed to be, and sitting inside the car with your own headlights hurting your eyes and causing you to squint. It was a somewhat-surreal world out there, one that left you with a deep feeling that seemed simultaneously—and incongruently—between having attended a Christmas evening church service and having spent Halloween night in a cemetery, a hybridized feeling that at the same time was both holy and haunted.
Maybe because we were tired, or maybe because of something much more, we always seemed to ride back home in silence.
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